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Game changer

Bribed with a Nintendo, Tom Foot learned much later of his father’s motivation in getting him to learn Shelley by heart and what he owed to the ode

01 August, 2019 — By Tom Foot

Paul and a young Tom Foot

SHELLEY’S epic poem The Mask of Anarchy was fundamentally important to me as a child because it got me a Super Nintendo.

The deal presented to me aged around 12 by my dad, Paul Foot, was 50p for each verse if recited along with the ones preceding it. The computer console grand prize would be delivered on completion of all 92 verses.

I was given a thin black book of Shelley “writtings” (a front page typo) compiled by Paul and called Shelley’s Revolutionary Year.

I thought the book was kind of cool as on the title page there was a man on a horse with a sword slashing at people on top of a skull-lined pedestal stamped August 16, which is my birthday.

For many years, I used to look at Paul poetry-pay as a parenting tactic to get me into literature, but I now see it for what it was: indoctrination.

Paul Foot’s Red Shelley, originally published in 1981

In the introduction to the book – which has been republished this month by Redwords (available from Bookmarks bookshop) to coincide with the 1819 Peterloo massacre anniversary – he wrote: “Socialists should not seek to persuade their children by dunning them with dogmatic propaganda. But socialists have a duty to their children to bribe or bully them to learn the poetry which carries revolutionary ideas through the centuries … Start with The Mask of Anarchy and work your way through to the last verse of the Ode to the West Wind. Reinforce it with the irresistible message of the Philosophical View of Reform. And rise like lions.”

“Rise like lions after slumber” is the first line of the poem’s final verse that is stamped on Paul’s grave facing Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

Surprisingly, given I can’t always remember what I did last week, the poem remains fixed firmly in my mind and I can still just about say the whole thing today.

As I got older, I began to understand what it was about and why Paul saw it as “without doubt the finest poem of political protest ever written in our language”.

Sometimes called the “Masque of Anarchy”, it is not pretentious or complex. It is written in simple language with a raw rat-a-tat-tat urgency of a hard-hitting news story. Shelley bashed it out in a furious response to the Peterloo outrage – when 11 people were killed on a peaceful protest by a special police force in Manchester.

Most of it is about the hypocrisies and arrogance of the ruling class, priests, law-makers and royalty. Shelley hated them all.

There is a lot about poverty and what would now be blandly described as “inequalities” – or the “gap” between rich and poor. There are 13 verses defining slavery in terms of economic control. Much of it is Marx before Marx.

New Journal reporter Tom Foot

Shelley’s explosive 1819 work was systematically suppressed – first through sedition or blasphemy publishing laws in the 19th century, and later by status ­quo protecting scholars of the 20th.

He was consequently regarded as spineless and ephemeral, interested in swooping skylarks, giddy romance and the rest of it. Paul’s 1981 book Red Shelley helped rescue the young radical from a kind of academic prison.

Paul, who wrote that book while living in Canfield Gardens, West Hampstead, was for almost all of his adult life a revolutionary socialist and member of the Socialist Workers Party.

This has been an uncomfortable truth for the media establishment, which comes together at the annual investigative journalism prize set-up in his name each year.

He did not believe that the parliamentary road could ever achieve socialism’s destiny – and this is one of the reasons he found a soul mate in Shelley.

In the introduction, Paul writes: “Again and again he returns to the theme that when the die is cast, and when a choice has to be made between reform by whatever means and reaction, there is no alternative but to side with reform.”

The prized Super Nintendo

The Mask’s poem’s final line – Ye are many, they are few – was used in early 1990s by anti-poll tax campaigners. The poem was recited in full in 1989 by the students occupying Tiananmen Square, the Stop the War demonstrations against the Iraq war in 2003 and in Tahrir Square in 2011. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has, perhaps not wholeheartedly, adopted the final line as its central slogan: “For the many, not the few.”

Corbyn spoke alongside Paul on dozens of platforms and regularly at the annual “Marxism” festival, where the book was relaunched last month.

This week he told me: “My mother loved Shelley especially Queen Mab and The Mask of Anarchy. She passed that love on to me, and Shelley’s work continues to inspire me and our movement. Ye are many they are few;  the brilliant last lines of a poem of indefatigably, determination and unity after the brutality of Peterloo. Though written two centuries ago, these words still resonate today as we continue to fight against injustice and strive to build a better world.

“At the Tollpuddle Martyrs Festival last month I read the last verse of Ode to the West Wind – beautiful, lyrical poetry that reminds us to stay hopeful for a better world that is around the corner, whilst remaining committed to the work required to create that better world.

“In the Labour Party and Labour movement we stand on the shoulders of giants and it is important to reflect upon our shared history. Shelley was an amazing visionary and very political at a time of deep repression, and Paul Foot’s work Red Shelley is a classic and a fitting tribute.”

At the launch, author Paul O’Brien – who wrote an excellent book about Shelley in Ireland and has written a foreword in the new edition – described the final line of the poem as “a call to action in a troubled world”, adding: “Shelley could never have imagined 100,000 people would roar with approval when Corbyn recited it at Glastonbury. But it is important to say that this is more than a just slogan. The way it is being bandied around at the moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tesco used it.”

Coincidentally, I’m going to be 40 on the 200th anniversary of Peterloo Day on August 16. I’m not sure which is the more tragic milestone, as I’m still playing my Super Nintendo.

Paul Foot’s Shelley’s Revolutionary Year, with a foreword by Paul O’Brien, is published by Redwords. Available, £7 (+ £2.50 p&p), from Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, WC1B 3QE. ISBN: 9781912926053,


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